Running with the Shadows

directorsCutKeyArt1920I’m a Rigger.

Drones? Yep! Submachine gun? I got it. Grenades? Of course. Slap on a few implants for enhanced deadliness and I’m a dimmer, an almost human killing machine. It’s a perfect blend of practicality and death. It’s a dark world out there, filled with mostly shadows that me and my crew slink beneath. Shadow doesn’t even begin to describe my dystopic existence.

Human includes all the races – trolls, elves and orcs. But there’s “normal” culture and all the rest are some variation of almost-human, monster culture.Funny how that works out because we all look like monsters down here, but what passes for normal is particularly gruesome. In the shadows we call the Others meta-humans. But in deep reality we’re all human in the only ways that matter. Shadowrunning makes a very strong point of that.

dwarfWe live in the service of faith which we call hope. For each other. For our whims and independence. For the sanctity of individuality. For the corporations who created the ashes that surround us, their decadent skyscrapers literally lording over the scraps of Earth we call free. Anarchy. We never knew that this is what freedom meant.

My days are spent hiding underground and my nights spent dusting, duping, or dodging, whatever it takes.I’m an equal opportunity killer. Take from me, I’ll take from you. Cross me and get creased. It never takes much to get that close to death and I do it almost everyday. Suspicion is the same as proof. Fear is my faith, because out here you can’t afford to take a chance. I’m packing a sure thing, always.

When someone asks me what I believe in, I don’t say “killing people”. I say …self preservation. I say freedom,but I really mean free from anything that I don’t approve of or understand – and of course not for everybody. If everyone had freedom then no one could deserve it. Freedom is for some of us, not all of us so the SINners get the warmth of Renraku while the SINless get coffins each night if they’re lucky, squatting in squalor or straight up lying on the pavement each night. Guess there’s not enough nuyen to go around.

renraku_skyline

There’s a hierarchy of humans fighting for rights and here in the shadows might is rights. From the Yakuza to the Valkeries, the Tong to the Azzies, flexing is a way of life, he with the most gets the most. In the fight against monsters, we often become them. Somewhere along the line we get too afraid to live. Don’t go here, because this may happen and not there because that may happen. Don’t trust anyone, don’t step on a crack or split poles. Prisoners in our own brain case.

How did it get this bad? When did the world become the rubble we sleep on? Very slowly, like  the creep of ghettos. It always starts with a few missing trash bins, then the few that are left get kicked and vandalized because the locals are pissed that it’s over-flowing and there doesn’t seem to be a city service that’ll pick up the drek. Creeps love creep. It gives them a place to hide, since badges don’t like visiting these parts. Soon, the neighborhood is two trash bags from a city dump and one dead body from a mass grave. Then communities form their own …associations. Order to check the disorder, make it safe enough to get by while they plead for real help. But in Seattle, it never came. In Berlin, we were alone. Soon the Azzies swoop in buying up the acreage one square mile at a time for a few fraggin’ nuyen. They’ll call it a project or Berlin Heights or something else progressive. The flats will cost more than any local can afford, which is a not too subtle way of them saying “get out.” That’s why we’re packing steal and worshiping dragons. Our commitment to keeping our homes runs hot like blood and deep like guts.

There was a time when people believed profit was truth, that everyone deserved what they had especially if they had nothing.

dragonAnd now, here we are. The filthy rich and the filthy. A world of anarchy and fascism, some parts “free”, some made in the image of unbridled capitalism which looks like a golden dragon with a toothy-smile and whose shine makes it appear much larger than it really is. The kind of dragon the rich can tell their babies is named Puff and it’s magical, bringing prosperity to all it soars above. They’ll believe in that dragon, like we all did …until the day they grow up and see the ashes left in the dragon’s wake. Some of them will blame the ashes for their fate, others’ll get chipped to flee from the horrors of the present and some will end up like me. Shadowrunning. Some will even become the dragon’s spawn.

Shadowrunning is the truth that’s all around us but that we cannot see. It’s named for the gargantuan shade of the dragon that we live in.

But …there’s always hope. Hope is for those who see the drek of everyday life and delude ourselves that this’ll get better. Everyone has faith in something. For me, it’s people – orcs, elves, trolls, all of them humans. Humans can change the way we live. We can change when and how we die. We can create the world in our image, even though the current picture ain’t all that flattering. I’m carving my square mile in the dirt one bullet at a time and one day I’ll lay in it. I fight because I believe we can change things. I believe that whatever happens tomorrow, it’ll be because of the action of some human somewhere – not a company, a dragon, a nuyen. Shadowrunning isn’t for the faint of heart. But if any one of us is worth sacrificing in the name of survival, then none of us is worth saving.

SR-GM-Screen-1680x1050

When it’s time to step out of the shadows, let’s hope we don’t emerge monsters.

#Bragtoberfest Achievement Round-up

Not as much of a round-up as I want, but I’ve got links to other round-ups! To see the first week’s results Izlain has got you covered. The first Saturday of Bragtober had bloggers get together for some MOBA battles in Strife.

My own triumphs this week:

  • Pacman DX+ : I’ve unlocked 11 of 12 Steam achievements. Little Chris scored 1.3 million in a 5 minute timed match of Pacman, strengthening his claim to the Little Gamer Throne!
  • Banished: The town of Rowler is promising. I’ve finally scored a couple of achievements which are pretty much endurance challenges. The longer you play, the more inevitable the achievements become. I’ve got 3!
  • Cook, Serve, Delicious: I nearly burned my reestaurant down this week. The Buzz has finally dipped below 104% which means people are talking about my restaurant LESS as a result of the charred meals this week.

I try to hop on Twitch, my Fail Live channel, to give you lovely folks a chance to get screenshots of me failing. My streams are few and never more than an hour so your window of opportunity is slim. Try to catch up! No one fails as spectacularly as me.

Defense Grid scores are in my future. I’ve noticed some of you have your own high scores and I’m laying down the gauntlet:

Bragtober seems to be a great month to compare scores and challenge one another, so there’s my challenge to you guys. If any of you arent’ familiar with Defense Grid, it’s an awesome tower defense game that you can find on PC and Xbox. I’ve spent most of my time scoring big on Xbox so this is a good time to fix up my PC scores!

I’ll accept any of your challenges, even if you slaughter me. Especially if you’ll slaughter me.

Making an Effort: Game Accessibility

Thanks to Simcha and Belgast for mentioning a new feature of Final Fantasy XIV which makes the game more enjoyable for those with hearing impairments. They’ve introduced a waveform system that allows players to visualize the sounds and effects. Right now it’s only available for Windows, but I just thought this was worth pointing out.

This is what “making an effort” looks like, folks. You can read about it in the patch notes here and see pics below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

New accessibility settings have been added to the System Configuration menu. (Windows® version only)
The FINAL FANTASY XIV team strives to provide an enjoyable, accessible gaming experience for all of our players.
As part of this continuing endeavor, we have implemented an experimental new visual alert feature.
* Due to system limitations, this feature will only be available on the Windows® version of the game.

About Visual Alerts
The option to enable a visual representation of sound waves has been implemented for the benefit of our hard-of-hearing players. With this feature enabled, players will see a visual representation of the various sounds emitted within in the game. We hope that this will prove useful, as well as convey the sense that the world of Eorzea is alive with sound.
Details
Sounds are visualized as waveforms, with three categories of sounds (see below) each represented by a different color. These visualizations are connected to the game’s volume settings, so the size of the visualizations may be adjusted by adjusting your volume settings.

Blue: Background music
Red: System alerts
Green: Sound effects, ambient sounds, voices

Casual Replays: Baal Runs

Remember those? I’ve been doing something similar in Diablo 3 lately.

For the past two weeks I’ve really been absorbed in Diablo 3 with some friends. Almost every evening I’ve been getting online to smash demons in Sanctuary and I can’t figure out why it’s so awesome. I recently wrote that it’s related to how great Blizzard games feels and I know that’s a huge part of it for me. The other part of me needs to admit that Diablo 3 armors look incredible and I enjoy the transmogrification and dyes.

I don’t have a video replay this time, but it wouldn’t be a very interesting thing to watch. D3 is one of those things you have to play because it’s not all that interesting as a spectator.

I’ve been meaning to catch a few rounds of Dungeon of the Endless for a few days now, but I’ve got D3 on my mind and that’s what I turn on lately. I’m pretty sure this will be followed by months of inactivity on bnet. I’ve been under these temporary spells before!

I haven’t turned on Necrodancer for a week despite playing that for many days in a row when I bought it. As I played I realized that the actually dancing in the game is too limited. I can’t really move the way I want on the beat, as the game wants you to move to the same steady grove on most of the levels. That made things less interesting, but I’m hoping the developer will allow players to be more creative with their dancing later on down the road. I don’t suspect that it will hapen, though. About two weeks ago they announced that the current beta version of the game isn’t that much different from what will be released. But we’ll see how that goes.

What have you been playing this week?

The Quest for the Heart and Soul of EVE

So a rather interesting debate exploded over at J3w3l’s last month which quickly began to turn into finger wagging and passionate claims and denials of the very existence of other players. The whole PvP/PvE debate is unusually touchy these days it seems. More than I remember it being in the past. In this case, I engaged a couple of fellow gamers on the question of what makes PvE and PvP so different. Specifically, there were several claims made that PvP is more “dynamic” than PvE which lead me to think about the PvE of EVE Online.

Now staunch PvPers will never want to be in a conversation where they admit PvP has anything in common with PvE. So usually they’ll try to frame the discussion as a duel between having a “dynamic” (defined as intelligent people to play with) game or having one where you only interact with AI (defined as PvE). I think their definitions are a bit off and the comparison too extreme. It strips each feature of it’s nuance and importance. PvE, generally should be understood as cooperative play when players use the term to describe their preference. They’re almost always trying to explain that they prefer not to compete in combat with other players. PvE players play with the same dynamic people as PvPer’s, so that’s not a defining difference between the two. PvP on the other hand is typically used as a euphemism for “player combat”. Players usually use it to reference this specifically. When PvP’ers come to the conversation with this term their number one argument is that “players are more dynamic” which means this is the subject when the term is brought up.

So here I am pondering just what it is about EVE Online that me and thousands of other players like me – nay, the majority of EVE players – love about it. I pretty much only engage in PvE in EVE these days. It’s just vastly more interesting to me. I interact with other players. We have politics, we have rivalry, and of course the economy. We’re every bit as active with other players as PvPers. It’s just the nature of that interaction tends to be non-violent. I’ll balance that by saying I know capsuleers who find the same amount of joy in combat against other players. They also have politics, rivalry and economic interests. These are equally valid and fun ways to engage the game. The differences between the two come down to how players prefer to approach one another. PvE’ers tend to prefer cooperation, and PvPer’s the opposite. Of course, none of us can ignore all the players in between, such as the bounty hunters, good-guy militias who fight pirates, pirates who fight evil pirates, industrial companies who hire bounty hunters, freight runners who hire security and so much more. This is why defining PvP and PvE based on combat/AI gets us nowhere. Both features employ combat, but the approach is different. The defining difference is how each player prefers to approach other players.The gameplay is otherwise, not very different.

If we were to say that there was a heart in EVE, a core that gave the game all of it’s strength and power to influence gameplay, what would that thing be?

My first hunch is always to say it’s the economy. It drives all interaction, both peaceful and warlike. Maybe that’s why so much of what I enjoy about PvE other players enjoy about PvP. How else could these difference be bridged? They’re two approaches to the same game with the one major intersection being the economy. All the same, it’s true that every feature of the game is interconnected such that no one piece is as good without the other. You can’t subtract the economy from EVE in any way and still have the game we know. Each piece, including the PvE/P pieces, makes up the whole. None can be removed without changing the game dramatically.

They’re just features, and while players may have a preference for one or the other, the things they signify usually are only tangentially related to what they actually mean. So PvE is no more strictly about playing with AI than PvP is about strictly fighting with other players.

EVE is a fascinating game, totally unique in its offerings. It’s got flaws, but it’s also got something no other MMO I’ve ever lived in has. It’s got politics and economics are gameplay systems. I’d say these are the heart and soul of the game. PvP and PvE are just additional features.

The Value of Blizzard’s Grind Design

As usual, an article over at Gamasutra had me pondering what kind of games Blizzard really makes. The more I thought on it, the more I realized their games are pretty low on gameplay with 1.5 exceptions: Starcraft (1) and raiding in World of Warcraft (.5).

wallpaper-scandwowBefore I stir the ire of Blizzard fans more hardcore than me, I just want to make clear that I think they have a very unique style due to their powerful talents. As I see it, their two strongest suits are code execution and art. They’re one of the best developers in the industry for creating powerful, easy to use tools which can make powerful, complex, and highly interactive games. Their games feel awesome to all who touch them and their art inspires. I wouldn’t call Blizzard masters of game design though. In fact, I don’t think think their game design is all that interesting or good. But from a technical standpoint, they clearly know their stuff and understand their players. It’s clear they’re numbers guys who have a passion for art and games.

If Blizzard crafted tools for other game companies, we’d have the most innovative and exciting games the world has ever seen. One need only look at the RTS and MOBA genres to know how amazing Blizzard tools are for gamers and amateur developers. In the hands of professional developers who excel at game design …can you imagine?!?

Powerful Engines, Psuedo-Games

There’s one game, in my opinion, that Blizzard showed their talent for game design and that was Warcraft, which has given us Starcraft, the most well designed game in their current line-up.

Disclaimer: There are no Space Marine Kitties in Starcraft II.

Disclaimer: There are no Space Marine Kitties in Starcraft II.

Starcraft is pure game. There’s no mindless grinding involved. From the moment you turn it on until the moment you shut it off, you’re playing a game. To successfully get through a round of Starcraft, you have to completely engage with it. The word gameplay doesn’t mean “to play a game”. It describes how the player engages with game mechanics, and more importantly, how those things create a complete game experience. This game stands out among the other Blizzard titles as delivering actual gameplay.

Take Soccer (Football). Soccer is a game. The soccer ball is not a game. It’s just equipment which, when given mechanics and set within a ruleset, helps create a game. So handing someone a ball and telling them to enjoy the game makes no sense. Handing someone Diablo and telling them to “enjoy the game” is similar in my experience.There are elements there to play with, but nothing that feels like there’s a game already going on. The game just gives me a set of features (balls) and then tells me to go hog wild with them. I might decide that the object of the game is to find the best yellow loot. I might decide I want all of the achievements. I might decide to chase astronomical paragon levels. Their presence doesn’t constitute a game or create gameplay. If we zoom out to the big picture though we see this is one of Blizzard’s hallmarks: they give the player the tools to make their own game. And that’s had crazy awesome consequences for the game industry at large. It just doesn’t make for excellent gameplay itself.

Starcraft gameplay is brilliantly designed and it owes it’s gameplay to none other than the original Warcraft. So it’s ironic that World of Warcraft has so little gameplay by comparison.We’ve all said it, WoW is a theme park and/or a job depending on who you ask. It has many balls, but I’ve already established that balls themselves aren’t games. The one thing about WoW that’s absolutely a game is raiding and it has it’s own gameplay. Now one could argue that the elements that build up to raiding make up the gameplay, and you’d have a point. I’ll talk about that point a bit later so hang on to that idea. All I want to say here is that WoW has billed itself as more than a raiding game, especially with the addition of competitive PvP, but because those are only balls they feel hollow.

art-wowndiablo

Wait for it …this game is coming.

What Blizzard understood about their MMO when they made it was that it needed to be a virtual world. They largely succeeded there. This is why Blizzcon has become such a cultural phenomenon. People play because they know the characters, know their stories and can share a virtual space with them. To simply be in Azeroth is enough for most people. On a slight tangent, I think this may also have something to do with the great disappointment even hardcore fans have of the games’ failure to implement things like player housing, community building tools (like a better LFD) and improved crafting for a player driven economy (people want to be there). But that’s another article for another day.

The original modern MMO.

The original modern MMO.

Diablo has none of these things going for it, when you think about it. More interesting is that when you get right down to it, World of Warcraft is a blend of Diablo and Everquest. What the truly loved about Everquest was raiding and when they sat down to make WoW, this was the cornerstone of the gameplay, the driver of all the mechanics. Raiding is a game on it’s own, but MMOs need much more than this because they’re virtual worlds. So they added battlegrounds and arenas and millions of quests. Every feature is tuned to build a character up for dungeon runs. These are support for the raid game. These are the answer to “what will players do when not raiding?”.

The endless grind of Diablo was set within the Warcraft universe and wrapped around Everquest raiding to bring us the World of Warcraft we know today. To get to the actual gameplay (raiding), one must grind hours, days, months and years on their character(s) and outlast the glacial content patche releases. If we could measure the amount of game at level 1 and compare it to the amount of game at level 90, we’d see virtually zero game at earlier levels and total game at the max level. If you’ve played WoW before, you probably know what I mean by this. It’s tough to describe.

So now I’m back to the initial question that drove me to write this: what’s the value of Blizzard’s game design? Why are their games so low on gameplay and so high on grind?

Blizzard seems to excell at developing systems that thrive on player dedication and compulsion. Fans will walk through fire for the company, and they know it so they expect us to endure the early parts of their games knowing that we’re loyal enough to tough it out until the end, where a great reward awaits us. And by the time you’re at the end you’ve invested so much time and energy that you’re far more likely to stick around just to justify it all. It’s very interesting to observe as a fan. Why did I sink so many hours into Diablo 2 back in the day?

wallpaper-diablo3-butcherRecently I played a round of D3 with Talarian over at Gamer by Design and it sunk in just how casual my playing of Diablo had become over the years. I’m not their target gamer any more, but I used to be. Talarian had 115 paragon levels and I had 14. In fact, I wasn’t even max level when we started (I was level 68) and this was my highest character. In Diablo 2, I had 3 max level characters (99), ladder characters, hardcore characters …and leveling back then was severe. SEVERE! If you saw a level 99 the only proper response was awe, especially if they were hardcore characters. Achieving that required a time commitment that wasn’t matched by the actual gameplay – players did it to compete with other players. Grind the same mobs and dungeons over and over and over and over …literally an infinite grind. The game was the same at level 1 as it was at 99 (there was nothing different about the gameplay at any given level). The only “progression” was your level going up, but what you did never changed. It’s quite literally the thing we do from 9 to 5. Work. Work is only a game to the extent that we “compete” with co-workers to earn pay and promotions. So why do we call Diablo a game, but not our jobs?

The Secret of Blizz Gameplay

This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy those hours because I still do. There’s something cathartic about playing a Blizzard game that I cannot deny. In that catharsis we can begin to understand the value of Blizzard “games”. In Diablo there were other things that made this enjoyable, because I and millions of others definitely had fun …but it wasn’t the gameplay itself that delivered it for me. In fact, I know this must be the case because in single player mode the highest level I’d achieved was level 24. If the gameplay was so gripping and fun and interesting, I would have played single player just as much. I didn’t.

The mechanics of game kinaesthetics as described by Steve Swink in the book Game Feel.

The mechanics of game kinaesthetics as described by Steve Swink in the book Game Feel. Blizzard games are located in area 1.

The one thing that I think keeps players playing is that the game feels good. And I mean really feel as in engages our physical senses. Blizzard is one of the best in the industry when it comes to making the game controls an extension of your body. Smashing a demon head feels visceral. Whirlwinding feels like I’m spinning in my chair. The “click button” to “satisfying response” ratio is so tight that it’s really hard not to enjoy the way the game feels. Players like me just enjoy running around killing things because of how incredible it feels. And in that, Diablo 3 is a major success. I understand what they mean when they say that they achieved the goal of making it fun to kill things in game. Can’t take that away from them.

This is equally true of World of Warcraft. Watching my priest do that smooth, subtle wobbling from side to side while casting a spell feels GOOD. Jumping in the air while letting an arrow fly from my hunter feels GREAT. The real crime here in Blizzards case is that they don’t hold industry workshops to teach other developers this fine art. I think this is the secret to their game development success and the reason that millions enjoy playing. Their games have a way of pulling you inside, giving you a feel of in-game presence.That’s powerful.

And with that in mind, I’m amazed at how little gameplay is actually in Blizzard games. Despite that, they deliver powerful and valuable experiences that fans can’t let go of. When Blizz sets out to deliver gameplay, we get Starcraft or raiding. Otherwise we get Diablo and theme parks, this digital contraption driven by nothing but player compulsion (grinding like it’s our job) and keen kinaesthetics.

Yet I don’t think this was always the case. If you watch their games evolve, they appear to have progressively less gameplay from sequel to sequel. I call this process Distillation (“dumbing down”), where the devs attempt to streamline features to make them easier, more fluent for the player. But I think what we end up with is a soulless, feel-good “game”. And I think that has a value all it’s own .

Scree Tags: #blizzard #kinaesthetics #gamedesign